After forcing his way out of Houston in controversial circumstances, James Harden’s conditioning, attitude and application were questioned. Not anymore.
A perfect West Coast road trip – 5-0 against the Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and both LA teams – doesn’t tell the whole story. Neither does the fact that it’s the longest undefeated away run in franchise history. Or that it was done almost entirely without Kevin Durant.
The Brooklyn Nets are finally rolling. The ‘scary hours’ are upon us. James Harden has arrived in New York City.
The less said about Harden’s acrimonious departure from the Houston Rockets the better, but it is worth pointing out that the 2018 MVP has been on the phone every day to provide aid to the city as the state of Texas remains gripped by a power disaster, even talking directly to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
“I have phone calls literally every day, all day trying to impact the city because they’ve shown me so much love and respect in the time that I was there,” Harden said.
“So, I’ve called Houston home. It’s devastating obviously. It’s probably worse than the hurricane because we just don’t know how many people were affected, not having electricity not having power and aren’t able to eat.”
While Harden’s ties to the city that housed him for almost a decade remain as strong as ever, it appears that he has regained something of his lust for basketball since his trade to Brooklyn. His conditioning and attitude were heavily criticised before, during and after the trade that looks set to shape the NBA landscape for the next few seasons, not least by his former (albeit brief) team-mates John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
According to reports at the time, both players directly addressed Harden’s body language and effort during a team meeting. Not long after, Harden made his debut in Brooklyn.
With the Nets, Harden looks every bit his old self, even if he’s not putting on quite the same Herculean scoring performances he became renowned for in Houston. His playmaking, always Harden’s force majeure, whatever his otherworldly abilities as a scorer, has once again come to the fore.
He’s averaging 11.3 assists per game – comfortably topping the league – and if you take only his Brooklyn numbers into consideration, he’s also shooting 50 per cent from the field and 40 per cent from three for the very first time. Not only is that testament to a renewed focus, it’s also a healthy by-product of the fact he is no longer carrying a team. Harden is taking slightly fewer shots than normal but due to this efficiency is still averaging 25 points per game.
In Houston, each play lived and died with Harden. There he became the best isolation scorer in the league, possibly in the history of the league, and carried the Rockets to eight straight playoff appearances. Before he joined they had missed the postseason three times in a row. With Harden, 50+ win seasons were all but guaranteed.
This, of course, came at a cost. By the playoffs, Harden would typically look gassed, his three-point shooting would desert him and his team-mates – spoon-fed for so much of the regular season – would fail to step up in support of their flagging superstar.
It would perhaps be a different legacy had Chris Paul not injured his hamstring with the Rockets 3-2 up against the Warriors in the 2017/18 Western Conference Finals. Harden scored 32 in both the remaining games but without Paul, it wasn’t enough. That he did so on poor efficiency only emphasises the point.
Now, Harden seems to have rediscovered the freedom that always made him the perfect modern guard, equal parts creator and destroyer, from the Sixth Man of the Year in OKC to the three-time scoring champion in Houston.
Against the Suns, Harden led Brooklyn back from the brink without Durant or Irving alongside him, scoring 38 points and dishing 11 assists as the Nets came back from the largest half-time deficit in their history: 24 points.
Against the Lakers, everyone’s championship favourites, he had 23, five rebounds and 11 assists. Irving was back, but had a quiet night by his standards with 16 points.
And on Sunday night against the Clippers, the Nets completed their pristine trip out West, as Harden poured in 37, grabbed 11 boards and threw seven assists. On the final play of the night, Harden drew an offensive foul as Kawhi Leonard drove to the basket, sealing the game for Brooklyn.
It is telling in itself that Harden, a player often ridiculed for his lacklustre defense (often incorrectly – he can be an excellent on-ball defender), was guarding Kawhi Leonard on the crucial possession.
Whether the call was incorrect or not, it looked soft but Leonard did appear to push-off, it was yet another winning, heady play for his team to cap an impressive stretch. The Nets now hold the longest winning streak in the league.
While talk has understandably focused on Brooklyn’s porous defense, relatively little has been made of how effortlessly Harden has made his transition to the Nets. Already he is the whirring hub of a historically great offense, at the moment the best in modern NBA history.
He appears as comfortable splitting ball-handling duties with Irving as facilitating for the second unit. His passing chemistry with Joe Harris, DeAndre Jordan and role player Bruce Brown has been immediate. It’s clear his team-mates love having him there. In Steve Nash, he has the perfect coach to complement his game.
Both Harden and Nash played their best basketball and won the MVP award under Mike D’Antoni, who now operates as Nash’s assistant in Brooklyn, bringing everything full circle. These are two men who understand what Harden can give to a basketball team better than anyone else.
Whatever people say about his attitude and application, Harden remains the easiest player in the world to coach – particularly when you’re a point guard whisperer like D’Antoni, or the man he was whispering to, his ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ savant Nash.
Give him the ball. Spread the floor. Set picks. Cut to the basket when he drives. Do that and, inevitably, you will win far more games of basketball than you will lose. Then come playoff time, the Nets have Kyrie Irving to break down defenses instead of Eric Gordon, Kevin Durant as your small-ball center instead of PJ Tucker and Joe Harris to hit clutch catch-and-shoot threes instead of Danuel House.
While some seemed to lose sight of Harden’s immeasurable talent as he forced his way out of Houston, it’s once again impossible to dismiss or ignore. These are already “scary hours”, as he so poetically terms them, for every other team in the league. Once Durant returns to full health they will become scarier still.
In the interim, Harden has the Nets living up to their impossible billing. For that he deserves all the credit you can afford.